Downtown Walkabout

On Sunday, the first day of the work week here, I went downtown, through Tahrir Square and around the area to the American University of Cairo.

The debate continues, as you can see from the picture below – Tahrir Square has become a place of public dialogue.  Actually, it feels like, um, ardent public dialogue can break out anywhere, at any moments notice –  everyone is now a political commentator, with lots of years-worth of ideas they have been waiting to get out.  Plus, who doesn’t like a good debate.

Sunday was an exceptional day in Cairo – there were such grand rainstorms that it knocked power out, and the infrastructure took a hit – our internet wasn’t restored until late this afternoon.

Check out the photos at Flickr – I’m still figuring out how to embed the slideshow.

Play, Egyptian Style

For something to be Haraam it must be prohibited by the Islamic faith, but the term has come to include behavior which is immodest, such as a male approaching a female to whom he is not directly related. Ideally, men and women would not be so audacious as to make eye contact at all. This post is purely my experience, and not meant to make light of Lara Logan and what she went through covering the Egyptian Revolution.

Around Cairo, 99% of the people are respectful, warm and friendly.  There are the occasional burps to this, aided by my state of prey due to my cultural background.  Young boys and men (say age 12-25) seem to really appreciate calling out to Western women, because we are culturally conditioned to turn around and acknowledge any greeting. This is flirting on the edge, since it is close to haraam to draw our attention this way, as I understand it.  They are also the ones who will give a woman the most play, as in behavior that is in the least bit engendered/flirtatious/annoying. . .

The first time I experienced this was at The Citadel, when young high school age boys kept approaching me and saying, “Welcome” “Are you fine?” (I like to think so) and asking if they could take pictures with me.  I shrugged this off as boys being goofy.  Later, at The Egyptian Museum, a group of college age men followed me around for 20 minutes, whispering.  I was slightly more irked by this because: a) what is said to be going on in certain closed off wings of the museum and b) it convinced me my skirt was caught up in my underwear for the whole time.

Today as I waited to cross the road in Maadi, a whole bus-full of young men waiting in traffic started yelling “Welcome!” and “Are you fine?”  I have, in the two weeks I’ve been here, learned that this is it – this is the harassment everyone told me to be careful of.  A bus load of 20 somethings yelling “Welcome!” and one actually executing a full cartoon-esque wolf whistle. At the time, it was endearing and funny, until a woman in a burqa and gloves (I have now seen fully burqa’d women with and without gloves, so that is an individual choice) sniffed in my direction as I laughed (also a cultural faux pas, now I am an unaccompanied woman engaging flirtatiously with men I don’t know.) She was a sobering reminder that there are drastic differences in domestic freedoms allowed men and women in Islam. I shouldn’t be so disrespectful, or allow others to disrespect me.

She also answered a question I’d been very curious about-  if you wear glasses and a burqa, you put the glasses on last, on top of the burqa.

Art in Cairo

Have you ever had one of those moments when all you can think is “paging black hole for one” in the hopes that it would just suck you in and save you from swallowing yourself whole, having already started on a foot and made it to mid-thigh?  I had one of those moments last night.

I had just described a favorite photograph of the Egyptian revolution, which was on display in The Townhouse Gallery’s Pop Show in Cairo, to my dinner companions. The image is of a protest in Tahrir Square.  In the middle of what appears to be the cacophony and dissonance of dissent are the faithful at prayer.  I mentioned the photograph – Ta7rir Prayer –  and the photographer, Karima Khalil, as well as how powerful I thought the image was to the man seated to my left, Max Rodenbeck of The Economist and author of Cairo, The City Victorious. His response was something along the lines of: “I’m glad you think so, I’m married to the artist.”  D’UH!

According to Lucy, a friend who recently received a grant through the American U in Cairo and the Ford Foundation to study aspects of arts and culture here, art in The Old Egypt had a full stop at Modernism.  She discussed art and culture in Egypt with me as we walked through Tahrir square to two independent galleries. Apparently, the former minister of culture was versed in all aspects of modernism and had not opened the door to postmodernism.  Under the system in Old Egypt, artist relied heavily on patrons for support, and the biggest patrons were closely tied to the government.  Some art schools had segregated seating in classes, and most stopped live modeling.  “Schools final shows,” said Lucy, “would be the artists vision of Egypt.”  Without a doubt, the heavy governmental support led to a nationalist vision of art.

Lucy had been part of the team which start The Townhouse- one of the first places in Cairo, and Old Egypt, which fostered independent art, setting up a foundation with the support of places like the Ford Foundation, for foreign artists to do a residency in Cairo, and for community and cultural outreach into its neighborhood.  While New Egypt is fostering more art across a wider spread, she laments the restricted access to art in New Egypt.  Galleries and art stores have popped up in high-end malls and upper class suburban locations, removing immediate access to a wider vision of art from the people.

The Pop Show at The Townhouse Gallery was in response to this.  The exhibition is what the public submitted in response to advertisements for art, any art.  This resulted in a semi-curated breadth of genres, from autodidactic collage to the amazing photography of Khalil.  Several pieces stuck out, including one by the artist in residence.  The piece was the edition of  Al Ahram (a pro Mubarak paper) for the day after he left office.  Every word had been removed in blocks, leaving a grid of sections layered over each other in a precise architectural manner – an architectural order, which Cairo itself does not reflect.

The second stop on the tour was the Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo and its exhibition, Propaganda By Monuments (the link is to news coverage of the exhibit with pictures). The following is the brochure description: “Through an exhibition, a series of events, and a bilingual publication, Propaganda By Monuments is an exploration into the unexpected narratives of reconstruction. Inspired by the eponymous short story by South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, this project reflects broadly on the long-term roles of nostalgia, statecraft, cultural transfer, humour, and political ambition, in the reconstruction of spaces – nation-sized or just headspace – after upheaval and revolution.”  The best image, to me, was that of the Angolan aeronautical mission to the sun, in 2007.  The rocket used looked like something that would make Fritz Lang salivate.

A lot of Cairo is a reflection of Modernism.  The majority of city buildings were built in the late nineteenth to twentieth centuries.  The walk to The Townhouse from the Tahrir Square Metro station passes architectural styles from  slightly before Beaux Art to a socialist modernist minimalism.  Cairo, with its turns, endless traffic and mash up of architectural styles from the almost prehistoric to socialist minimalism, seems to wear its history in its architecture, and not in its art.